By Dan Haley
One day when I was a kid, I picked the Oak Leaves up off the dining room table and read a story that changed my perspective on life and my hometown, which previously had seemed pretty whole, though I was fairly certain I lived in the poor part of town, south of Madison.
The article reported on some sort of government study — yeah, you know, another government study — and the study concluded that "South Oak Park was culturally deprived."
"Culturally deprived?" I said. "What in the name of Jiminy Cricket!" (I was Frank Haley's kid, so we said such things. I was also Mary Haley's kid, so we occasionally said such things as "Holy crap!") But let's go with the quaint version since I was just 11 and this was the mid-'60s, before the revolution came.
How can South Oak Park be culturally deprived? I thought. What does it mean to be culturally deprived? I thought next. We had the Maze Branch Library. And we had the, well, what else did we have? Didn't have the high school, the big library, the bookstores, Rosary College. What is now the high-toned Arts District on Harrison Street was just a bunch of neighborhood shops. The Village Bakery, Frank's Meat Market, Jim & Gloria's Grocerland, The Fry-Er (whole chickens, deep fried), John's Barber Shop (where I saw my first Playboy), Lauterbach's Bootery, the Harrison Shop, Reback's Rexall Pharmacy.
We didn't know yet that Barrie Park was a toxic waste dump. Rehm Park didn't have a pool yet — the powers that be probably thought we'd all drown — and didn't even have a name. We called it South Park because it was, well, south — down where we were all culturally deprived. We drove on Street, worshiped at Church, learned at School and ate at Home.
Dagnabit, we were perfect little idiots. We were culturally deprived and we didn't even know it until the government told us. Isn't that just the way!
This comes to mind because there is a strange little North-South range war busting out over on the comment board at OakPark.com. It is tied to our reporting of the mini-testing brouhaha at Mann School. You know Mann School. Some of our commenters note that it is Oak Park's wealthiest, whitest, highest-testing elementary school. There was actually a comment questioning our coverage and stating it was unlikely any WJ staffers lived in the Mann district. You know, some of us still have some healing to do from that culturally-deprived era, so go easy.
The North-South gibber-jabber dissipated by the late 1960s not because we suddenly had coffee shops and poetry readings in 60304 but rather because everyone became fixated on the East-West divide in the village. Suddenly the issue was whether you lived east or west of Ridgeland because, just sayin', there are black people, lots and lots of black people coming to live east of Ridgeland.
Now if, like me, you lived south of Madison and east of Ridgeland you were in a double whammy: Culturally deprived and making friends with Negroes. It was a lot to deal with for a bunch of people who thought Edgar Rice Burroughs was a better writer than Ernest Hemingway, preferred Gunderson four-squares to Wright's uncomfortable-looking homes and who needed a statue of Jesus on top of their church just to find their way back home.
Can't we all just get along? We have community theater on Harrison Street now. Come visit. And I hear-tell the parents of Mann kids have the same joys and challenges raising them up as the rest of us do.